Week 94: ‘was there ever such a king of Brittayne as Arthur?’ and other 17c tutorial questions

What was teaching, and learning, like in a 17th century Oxford college? How did it differ from today?

Well, at Exeter College we now have a much better idea as we have acquired the manuscript teaching notes of Exeter’s Rector Prideaux (1578-1650).

Prideaux's teaching notes 1637-41

Prideaux’s teaching notes 1637-41

John Prideaux was the son of a poor Devon farmer. He walked from the West Country to Oxford and was engaged as a college servant at Exeter College, rising to become Rector of Exeter College, royal chaplain, Regius professor of Divinity, Vice-Chancellor of the University, and Bishop of Worcester.

John Prideaux 1578-1650

John Prideaux 1578-1650

Even before he became Rector, Prideaux was acclaimed as a tutor and theologian. His teaching methods were popular, resulting in a series of published textbooks on such subjects as history and moral philosophy.

Chapter on geography

Chapter on geography

The manuscript we now have comprises Prideaux’s notes on geography, history both ‘profane’ and ecclesiastical, law and philosophy. Topics covered include ancient and modern political history from Nimrod to Ferdinand II, English history from the time of myths to that of Charles I, and a ‘view of eccelisticall history to this present 1638’ (from ‘good bishops’ to ‘luxurious Sodomites’ to incureable Babylonians’.

Britain's mythical past discussed

Britain’s mythical past discussed

Chapter on prophane history

Chapter on prophane history

Marvellously, each chapter ends with a number of ‘Inquiries’  – points for discussion between tutor and pupils.

Geographical questions include: ‘whether America was first discovered by Christopher Columbus … whether the Pope had the right to give America to the King of Spayne … whether the Northwest passage to the East Indyes may be hoped for’ … ‘whether the moon be habbitable’

Questions on geography

Questions on geography

The historical ‘inquiryes’ include whether ‘The Conquerors [William I] title to the crowne were feasible … whether the tales of Robin Hood and Little John have any warrantable ground … whether [Henry VIII’s] proceedings  were just against his Queene Anne Bulloyne’ …whether the Powder plot were the most inhumane and devilish designe that was ever undertaken’

The manuscript is thought to have originated from the library of the Earls of Shaftesbury at Wimborne St Giles in Dorset. Anthony Ashley Cooper (1621-1683), the first Earl of Shaftesbury, was a pupil of Prideaux’s at Exeter College from 1637-38 and it is likely that the first part of the book, ‘An Insight into Geography’ was acquired by Ashley Cooper at that time and then the later parts of the manuscript were bound with it at his request.

Fortuitously, the manuscript came up for sale in the 700th anniversary year of the College, and College fellows purchased it for the library to mark both the anniversary and the rectorship of Frances Cairncross (Rector 2004-14).

It provides a remarkable insight into teaching methods and what was being studied at Exeter College in the mid 17th century.

Joanna Bowring

College Librarian